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As the sun sets over the brown roofs of Ibadan, a small production factory stands out among the myriad of shops, radiating colours and textures that instantly catch the eye. It is here that Joan, the founder and creative force behind a rapidly growing fashion brand, brings to life the intricate beauty of Aso-Oke, a traditional Nigerian fabric. What started as a humble venture in 2019 with a small investment of 5,000 Naira has blossomed into a flourishing business, captivating fashion enthusiasts across different countries.
In this interview, Joan of Agbeke Alasooke reveals how a business she started with only 5,000 naira grew into an international and national award-winning fashion brand.
Your brand is creatively unique. How and when did you decide to start creating fashion pieces with aso oke?
We started this business in 2019 with only 5,000. All we wanted to do was create unique fashion pieces with aso oke and nothing could stop us from making that dream a reality. When you say aso oke, most people immediately assume that you’re talking about an outfit that can only be worn to weddings but a certain vendor on Instagram inspired me and opened my eyes to the diversity of aso-oke.
Can you walk us through what a typical day in your life as the creative mind behind this brand looks like?
I start my day by touching base with my team members. I currently have 5 people on my team. We run an online store and in most cases, that means reaching out to different people that are in different places at the same time so it can be tricky sometimes. So I start my day by reaching out to every single member of my team to confirm any pending orders and assign tasks to each person. If we also need to purchase anything, mornings are typically the time when I sort things like that out. But my mornings are not usually chaotic because my team members are good at what they do. All I have to do is to give instructions and follow up later in the day. So you could say that I spend my mornings giving leadership oversight about our activities for the day.
What is the driving inspiration behind this business?
One of my greatest passions is putting African fabrics, especially handwoven aso-oke, on the global map. When you enter a corporate room in Nigeria, you’d most likely see men in suits and women wearing English dresses. That kind of makes me sad because it makes me wonder how we’ll be able to preserve our culture. When I started, I didn’t see anybody else doing what we were doing and that kind of inspired me to start. We also started by making the regular outfits you’ve seen people make with aso-oke like bridal wear, gele, agbada and fila. But we later evolved to a regular RTW brand that designs people’s every day wears with aso-oke. Even down to sneakers, laptop bags and more daily essentials.
Can you tell us your proudest moment as a business owner?
In 2017, my business won the MSME Award for Excellence In Fashion and Style. This award was presented to us by the former vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. At that point, the business was barely three years and we were nominated alongside other businesses from all over the country. It was a proud and surreal moment for me and my team. I don’t even think I’ve fully processed how big of a deal that award is.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a small business owner in Nigeria?
The biggest challenge we face is logistics. We outsource our deliveries, which means logistics is one of the most important parts of what we do. Since the price of fuel increased, our deliveries have become more expensive. We wish there was a way we could continue operating with our old delivery prices but it is impossible. Every business owner is frustrated and the fact that we still have to deal with some unprofessional riders makes it even worse. Sometimes, we do interstate deliveries that go through bus drivers and I can tell you for free that it’s an extreme sport. Those drivers are worse than dispatch riders. Sometimes, they’ll delay delivery and still refuse to pick up their calls. Electricity is another major challenge for us. Our production factory is in Ibadan and I cannot remember the last time they had light in that area. These things can push any business owner off the edge.
Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
In the next 5 years, I see us in at least 6 African countries and major international fashion runways. I also see us becoming a top-of-mind brand when it comes to Afrocentric brands in Africa.
Asides from your aso oke artistry, how else do you make your daily 2k?
Asides from being an entrepreneur, I’m also a public relations consultant. I’ve been doing that for the last 14 years and I’ve worked with multinational clients. Striking a balance between these two parts of my life can be challenging but as a Nigerian, I have to constantly channel my inner resilience.
Have you ever had a low point in your business that made you feel like giving up?
With everything happening in the country, small businesses like ours are at the receiving end. I would be lying if I said I haven’t personally been affected by these. I just picked myself up yesterday. A few days ago, I was asking myself who sent me to become a business owner but I reminded myself of my “why”. My customers have also been considerable blessings to me through these hard times. This morning, my customer from London reached out to me and ended up putting a smile on my face. I live for moments like that with the amazing people that my business has allowed me to meet.
On a scale of 1-10, how would you say this business has impacted your financial life?
I’ll say a solid 7 out of 10. No matter how difficult things get, the business still manages to thrive. Even during COVID when we least expected sales, people were still ordering. We even had to start making nose masks that people loved.
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